South Africa’s communications minister said today that this week’s massive social media outage of Facebook Inc. apps including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook itself, serves as a reminder that governments around the world can do more to support the development of local social media platforms.
Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said that the creation and popularity of MXit, a Naspers-backed chat service established in South Africa, was evidence that local companies could indeed produce successful technology with the right backing.
“South Africa needs to support young people and citizens to develop social media platforms that we use,” said the minister, who was transferred in August from the department of small business development, quoted by Bloomberg.
“We cannot be dependent on the West for our technological environment, we must drive this ourselves as a country.”
Two years before the company officially closed its doors in SA in 2016, MXit had 88-million registered users.
MXit was, however, unable to withstand US-based competitors like WhatsApp and eventually succumbed.
At one point in the early 2010s, MXit was nearly ubiquitous in South Africa and was synonymous with cellphone chatting apps. It was the first real chat platform experienced by many South Africans.
Now, a decade later the app spurs nostalgic memories, but nothing more. It begs the question, what happened to the most popular chat app South Africa ever made?
A Brief History of MXit
MXit was launched in 2005 by Namibian-born Herman Heunis, initially beginning as a multiplayer game based around SMSs. The game was quickly changed to a chat platform after the game’s success was called into question due to the expensive nature of SMSs at the time since GPRS had yet to be widely implemented.
In 2007, Naspers, a media titan in South Africa, acquired a 30% stake in the company, now trading as MXit Lifestyle Ltd.
This is around the time most South Africans would remember first using the platform. It was the go-to chat app in high schools across the country and quickly amassed a huge following of young, profitable users reaching 7.5-million in 2008. Most of its users were from SA and 18 – 25 years old.
In 2011, 90% of MXit was acquired by World of Avatar, a self-described SMME business incubator. At this point, the service was enjoyed by 43-million registered users. It also underwent wide-ranging management changes after founder Heunis left the company.
Naspers also sells its shares in MXit at this point.
In 2012, MXit reaches its zenith. The company claimed to have 50-million active users worldwide and 10-million active users in SA alone. The CEO at the time, Alon Knott-Craig Jr, steps down and is replaced by Francois Swart. Marking the third major change in management in 6 years.
From 2013 onwards, MXit began reporting active user numbers from a 30-day period instead of a 90-day period. The service counted 7.4-million users in September 2013.
2014 saw MXit’s users decline to 4.9-million active monthly users in September. At this point, international messaging apps like BBM and WhatsApp were starting to gain fierce momentum in South Africa as users began switching to BlackBerry and Apple smartphones.
In 2015, MXit’s monthly active users had fallen to 2.7-million. In October of that year, the company announced that it was shutting down despite having 88-million registered users.
According to Broad Media, MXit believed that it was the fact that the service lacked a go-to smartphone version that eventually led to its death. At the time, WhatsApp had 10-million users in SA and Facebook had 13-million.
“The success of those cheap smartphones I believe put MXit – sitting without a decent version for smartphones – on a downward spiral that was impossible to come back from, despite the massive effort of the team,” the company said at the time.
Is Local Better?
Facebook Inc’s 6-hour app outage has spurred conversation across countries about the need for local services over services provided by trillion-dollar corporations like Facebook.
In Africa, Nigeria’s Twitter ban has faced harsh criticism from users and the media for being too draconian, but the Federal Government has said that the decision was part of a larger movement for the country to control its own internet space.
This August, the Ethiopian government announced that it had begun development on its own social media platforms in order to rival the growth of US-based services like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp in the country.
According to the director-general of Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Shumete Gizaw, the government wants these public platforms to “replace” Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Zoom.
Time will tell if more countries use this opportunity to build and promote their own social media services to replace international platforms.
If MXit’s history can provide any example for these countries, it should be that MXit’s own hesitancy to embrace future and emerging technologies like smartphones was what put it out of business.